Politics

Mike Duffy trial won't be run as a 'political vendetta,' lawyer says

A lawyer for Mike Duffy says his trial won't be run as a "personal or political vendetta," but didn't rule out calling Prime Minister Stephen Harper as a witness. Both sides agreed today to return to court Sept. 23 to set a date for the senator's trial.

Duffy did not attend 1st day, speed of proceedings critical in pre-election atmosphere

Donald Bayne, the lawyer for ex-Conservative Senator Mike Duffy, told reporters after a brief court appearance Tuesday that Duffy's trial won't be run as a "personal or political vendetta." 4:23

A lawyer for Mike Duffy says his client's trial on fraud, bribery and breach of trust charges won't be run as a "personal or political vendetta," but didn't rule out calling Prime Minister Stephen Harper as a witness.

Donald Bayne represented Duffy at his first court appearance Tuesday as both the Crown and defence agreed to return to court Sept. 23 to set a date for the suspended Conservative-appointed senator's trial. 

"This is a criminal case and it's going to be conducted professionally," Bayne said, adding the Ontario judiciary wouldn't allow for the trial to turn into a "circus."

Bayne wouldn't say whether he would call Harper as a witness and he disputed the idea that Duffy wants the trial to run at the same time as the next federal election, set for October 2015.

"This is not being run as a personal or political vendetta," Bayne said.

The first court date for Duffy — the affable TV personality, turned fiercely loyal Conservative partisan, turned Tory black sheep and poster boy for the Senate scandal — took only minutes.

Bayne confirmed Duffy doesn't want a preliminary inquiry and will go straight to a trial.

'This will be his first opportunity for a complete airing of all the evidence before an impartial tribunal and his opportunity to clear his name, to show that he is guilty of no wrongdoing," he said.

Bayne referred to the Ontario Court of Justice hearing the case, which would mean a trial by judge alone.

Duffy's health a concern

Bayne told a crowd of reporters on his way to the court that the first day of proceedings would be brief, and it lived up to that billing, as the curtain rises on what's sure to be the most politically charged courtroom drama to play out in Ottawa in many years.

But the trial itself will be lengthy, Bayne predicted: He says it could last six to eight weeks.

Duffy's health is a consideration as they push to set a trial date, Bayne said.

"You know he's had two open heart surgeries. So part of our concern to get the matter on with all reasonable and due dispatch is his physical and emotional and mental health."

Bayne agreed with a reporter's suggestion that Duffy's finances are strained, but wouldn't answer a question about how Duffy was paying him, asking in return what had made journalists think he's a high-priced lawyer.

High stakes for government

The way the ensuing trial plays out could have major repercussions for Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government ahead of next year's federal election campaign.

Timing, of course, is everything. The fixed election date is Oct. 19, 2015. Duffy has made it abundantly clear that he has no qualms whatsoever about dragging his former party through the mud. The speed of the trial and whether it has the potential to harm Conservative electoral fortunes will have political strategists making their calculations about whether to go to the polls earlier than next October.

One big question looms over the trial: how much did Harper know about the secret $90,000 payment made by his former chief of staff Nigel Wright to cover Duffy's contested Senate expenses?

The prime minister on many occasions has insisted that he knew nothing of the plan to repay Duffy's expenses. 

Conservative MPs played down the issue Tuesday.

"Mr. Duffy has the right to say what he wants to say, and let him say his piece in court … the court will make the decision as to the relevance of all of the data that's provided," said David Wilks, a former police officer who is the member for Kootenay-Columbia.

One of Wilks's caucus colleagues, however, said he's seen enough.

"Mike Duffy ... he's obviously guilty of what he's doing," Jay Aspin said, referring to the charges against Duffy as "old news" and "stale."

"I think the evidence is already out. I think Mike Duffy is the master of his own destiny," he said.

PM 'cannot wash his hands of that'

New Democrat MP Alexandre Boulerice said the Senate expenses scandal has been a real problem for Harper for more than a year.

"I think Mr. Harper should be called as a witness, because everything was in his own office with his own staff. He appointed Mr. Duffy, he appointed Mr. Wright, so he cannot wash his hands of that," he said.

Whether Harper is actually called as a witness is anyone's guess. The courts are reluctant to call prime ministers while Parliament is sitting. Far more likely is that the court will hear from Wright, who now lives in London, where he is helping build up the European business of Onex Corp., the company he left in 2010 to join the Prime Minister's Office.

The RCMP did not lay any charges against Wright.

In question period, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair asked whether Harper would use parliamentary privilege to avoid testifying.

Harper said there was "no reason to suggest" he would do that.

"What I would say to the leader of the NDP: if anyone were to ask me about the misuse and inappropriate use of public funds, I would certainly suggest him as an expert witness," Harper said.

Trudeau echoed Mulcair's assertion.

"I'm worried that the only way we're going to get to the truth of this affair is through people testifying under oath, and that includes the prime minister. My expectation that he'll actually do that is fairly low, but I do feel that the prime minister should be open and forthcoming with the facts of such a serious situation," Trudeau said.

Duffy faces 31 criminal counts related to his expense claims, which stem from his Senate housing and travel charges and the $90,000 payment from Wright.

A lawyer for Duffy's colleague, suspended senator Patrick Brazeau, was in court Monday to set a date for the preliminary inquiry into fraud and breach of trust charges related to Brazeau's Senate expenses.

Brazeau has to wait until next June for his next court date on charges of fraud and breach of trust. 

With files from The Canadian Press